Somewhere in the middle of Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending, I watched Woody giving the same neurotic-shnook performance as the ”Woody Allen character” that he has given for close to 35 years, and I realized, sad as it is to say, that I would be perfectly happy if I never saw him give that performance again. At 66, Allen is still playing the role of a nervous middle-aged man who acts like a nervous teenager, and it no longer looks good on him. The anxious passive-aggressive sputter, the pained Brooklyn whine with which he hits words like here (”hee-ah”), the halting one-liners that now sound like they should be followed by rim shots (on Canada: ”Up hee-ah, you don’t need Oscars, you need antlers!”), the slouch and horn-rims — the whole damn persona has passed from the charming to the irritating, turning into a clattering-boned parody of itself. Allen now just seems like a cranky old uncle who keeps getting older and crankier.
This time, his name is Val Waxman, and he’s a formerly celebrated Hollywood director who has been reduced to cranking out deodorant commercials. Val is lured back into the loop by his ex-wife (Téa Leoni), an executive who dumped him for the head of Galaxy Pictures (Treat Williams); she convinces the studio to let Val helm a $60 million period New York drama called ”The City That Never Sleeps.” Everything is in place for a big comeback until Val suddenly goes psychosomatically blind. Naturally, he decides to lie about it and make the picture anyway.
”Hollywood Ending” sounds like a laugh riot (and it may work at the box office), but the premise is mostly squandered on the mild gag of having Val flail about as he pretends to choose between alternate props. This is funny the first couple of times, not the third or fourth. Allen makes threadbare didactic jabs at Hollywood in the age of market testing, and he also tweaks his own fabled integrity. Yet the high-concept broadness of the blind-Woody gimmick promises a slapstick jamboree that never arrives. Coming after ”The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” in which Allen wandered about in a hypnotized haze, the movie makes you wonder what’s next: Woody as a paraplegic? A mute eunuch?
This may be Allen’s worst film since the embarrassing inside-Hollywood debacle ”Celebrity”; he ought to spend more time in the entertainment business if he’s going to send it up. Yet there’s a reason why Woody’s anxious-wise-guy persona, which once touched a hilariously truthful nerve of male behavior, now just sits there: It no longer connects to anything in the culture. In the new corporate age, broadcasting your nervous obsessions and tics, even for slyly ”vulnerable” comic effect, has ceased to be a way to endear yourself to people — in the office, or as the hero of a movie. As a filmmaker, Allen has shown force and vitality in the last decade (”Deconstructing Harry,” ”Sweet and Lowdown”), but as an actor he’s like a transplanted vaudevillian who doesn’t realize that he’s walking in place. Even Chaplin’s Little Tramp finally had to hang up his shuffle and cane. For Woody, it’s looking more and more like the end of his days of whine and neurosis.